Ko'd by a Job-Related Stroke, a White House Heavyweight Returns to the Political Arena
Rollins first got involved in politics while a political science major at San Jose State University. Over the years he has managed congressional and state campaigns, worked for the Nixon and Ford Administrations and, prior to joining Reagan in Washington, served as Republican chief of staff for the California State Assembly.
The son of a California shipyard worker, Rollins, like Reagan, was originally a registered Democrat but switched his affiliation in 1968. He is regarded as one of the President's staunchest supporters, but while he lay partially paralyzed in George Washington University Hospital, Rollins vowed that if he were able to resume his White House post, he would never let it dominate his life again. The promise was short-lived. After only a three-month absence, he was working 14 hours a day.
Shortly after Labor Day, Rollins, who is separated from his wife, will leave the White House to be executive director of the President's reelection campaign—if there is one. "It is my worst scenario that he won't run, but I don't think about it too often," he says. "The President has never walked away from a battle." Nor will Rollins. He recently spoke with PEOPLE'S Garry Clifford about his stroke and the impact it has made on his life.
The stroke occurred one week before the congressional midterm elections, shortly after 6 in the evening. For weeks before, I'd been running awfully hard, traveling with the President and going out on my own for various candidates. I'd taken the red-eye from California three times in seven days. I was aware of being very tired, but like most men in their late 30s and early 40s, I thought of myself as invincible. You always assume that if you sleep late one Sunday morning, you will get your strength back.
It hit me suddenly. Moments earlier I had been feeling fine. All at once I was very warm. I took my sweater off and decided to lie down, but I couldn't even make it across the room to the couch. I thought I was having a heart attack. There was a tremendous pain in my head, through my arm and left side. Then I couldn't move my whole left side. I didn't have control of my mental processes. I felt overwhelmed.
The staff quickly called the D.C. ambulance squad. No one seemed to know what to do. It was 20 to 25 minutes before the paramedics arrived. There had been a hassle with security getting them cleared through the gate of the White House and problems with where they parked the ambulance—your typical security scenario.
The paramedics were not sure what had happened to me. Some of my symptoms were not typical of a stroke. Dr. Arthur Kobrine, the neurosurgeon who took care of Jim Brady, was waiting for me at the hospital with a corps of other doctors, nurses and technicians. As they were administering their tests, I felt myself floating away. I thought it was all over.
I guess I was in the emergency room for about five hours with every doctor in the world coming in to try to figure out what was wrong. Kobrine heard a "bruit" or abnormal sound in my neck that indicated a partial obstruction of my right carotid artery, which would affect my left side. Several of the other doctors couldn't hear it, but Kobrine was convinced that it was a stroke and persisted. So they took me for a CAT scan. There were no ruptured vessels or internal bleeding at that time but the scan indicated Kobrine was right.
You have to be closely monitored with a stroke lest a piece of the obstruction breaks off and you have a second stroke. I was put in intensive care, which is a horrifying experience. All you want to do is sleep, but every light is turned on you and every 15 minutes nurses are taking your vital signs. After about 24 hours I could comprehend voices again and sense what was going on. But there was a period of three or four days when I didn't know whether I would have full use of my left arm or leg or my mental capacity.
Everything was put into perspective. The White House doesn't miss a step. The President continues to do what he has to do. The campaign rolls on. For months I had thought I was the person making it happen, when the truth of it is that we all are just birds of passage. Life goes on.
After four days they got me out of bed. I could walk, but my left leg dragged. My arm wasn't too bad, but I had little use of my hand. The doctors assume that my right carotid artery must have been damaged years before by a blow when I was an amateur boxer and that a partial obstruction formed in that area. Because of my erratic blood pressure, a tiny portion of that obstruction probably broke loose and got trapped in a little artery in the brain, causing my stroke. For months my pressure had been climbing. I'd get it down, but with the stress of the job, it would shoot up again.
I'm still surprised at the media attention my stroke got. I suppose one reason was because Lyn Nofziger had one soon after he left this job. Someone once described us as the Smith Brothers, as in cough drops, and I suppose it's accurate. We both have beards. We're both bald and overweight and neither of us is ever going to get a best-dressed award. Our styles are similar too. We both tend to be a little too candid.
This is a tough job. People assume the heavy load is only in a campaign year. In reality, the pressure never ceases. I look at the political consequences of every White House decision, how it will affect a governor or a senator who is helpful to the President. The President may not take my advice, but he should hear it.
I receive about 60 phone calls on a quiet day. During important legislative battles, such as AWACS or the defense budget, the calls can run as high as 200. Nobody is calling to say, "Hey, you did a nice job." And just about every call requires action. You can't deal with a governor or a member of Congress and not do anything about that complaint. I'm the person who has to say "no" for the White House.
At the end of my first week in the hospital, the doctors told me I would need an operation on the affected artery as soon as I got my strength back. I basically had no choice. Without an operation in which the obstruction is cleared out, the chances of another stroke would be very high.
During my second week in the hospital, I began physical therapy. Jim Brady, who had his therapy the same time I did, would tease me about my bald head and my beard and say my barber had screwed up the hair on my head and put it on my face. There was a bond there. We had the same level jobs in the White House and at that stage, like Jim, I didn't know whether I could return at full function.
I was sent home for a week before they actually operated on my neck. Though I really had no concept of the severity of the surgery, I was apprehensive. The operation lasted four hours. Four days later I was still out of it, again experiencing the same agonies and fears. My speech was slurred, my left arm and leg weak. I vowed to make myself take time off and never again to work 15-hour days.
A fortnight later I was sent home again. I had no energy and spent 20 hours a day sleeping. It was a couple of weeks before I knew I was going to have full use of my arm and leg again and no mental damage. By that time I was so grateful to be well that I didn't care whether I returned to the White House or went on to something else.
Near the end of January I went back to work full-time. Now my schedule is as bad as ever, though I'm more conscious of my health. I'm reminded every day—by an eight-inch scar—of the ordeal I went through. I kiddingly tell people I had my throat cut in the White House and lived to tell the tale. I take my blood pressure periodically and when I get tired, I'll take a weekend off and sleep. I need to focus on getting some weight off—about 20 pounds—and working out more. Often I'll use the heavy bags in the White House gym, which helps release the tension. I pretend the bags are Democrats who want to take the boss's job.
Life has become very important to me and when the reelection campaign is over, I'm going to do what I want to. I've always wanted to own a bar on the California beachfront. I'd only admit people who haven't voted in the last three elections and read only the sports pages. But I'm probably kidding myself. I'll always be around politics.